The Free-to-Play MMO Gauntlet

It’s been a while, huh? I’ve been very busy with a full plate of gaming (Black Ops 2 multiplayer, NCAA Football 13 dynasty, Madden 13 coach career, & Epic Mickey 2 are the typical ones right now), an official college course and two Coursera courses, a three year old and a short vacation to the in-laws. I am currently planning yet another final paper using gaming as the focus (in this case, the linguistic analysis of Black Ops II players), and briefly considered a comparison. The language used by gamers is different depending on the context, such as competitive vs cooperative, shooter vs MMO. I thought I might do a comparison between Black Ops and my former Permadeath guild in DDO. In Black Ops, a player is not likely to ever play with that group again, unless they are friends or added to the friends list. In DDO, our guild never met in person, but we still got to know one another well enough, even with aliases, and had friendships come from it. It is not surprising then how infrequently hostile, offensive, or abusive language (like that common in Call of Duty multiplayer) was heard in DDO. The mask of anonymity can lead to actions that someone might otherwise oppress.

Regardless, that’s another post for another time. Yesterday, I decided that DDO has gotten too “easy.” I did a test run to see if I wanted to go back to MV, and discovered that the game’s several updates since my last regular play have done nothing but decrease the challenge, particularly in low levels where PD players spend much of their lives. The good news, however, is that it is free. In fact, in the short time I’ve been looking at this issue, I think it might be the only (or close to) MMO that you can actually unlock EVERYTHING without paying a dime. Granted, it would take a whole lot of grinding, but in comparison to WoW’s policy, it looks pretty darn good.

So I’ve made a list, checked it… once. Downloaded and signed up for DC Universe, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars: The Old Republic, WoW, and a new, free account on DDO to see which ones really are good, especially for the price. I’ll play them all about equally so I can get a good idea of which has more running around, more grind, more leveling, and so on, and try to find the unique aspects of each to determine which are the best free-to-play MMOs.

Did I leave a favorite off the list? If you know of a GOOD free-to-play MMO, feel free to comment. I’ll look into it and see if I want to invest the time into it. These all made a list of “Best MMOs” that just happened to be free, so I’m starting here.

As of now, I’ve got about an hour into each of the worlds.

DC Universe Online- PvP server, hero based on Green Arrow with Batman as my adviser.

Lex Luthor has come back from a grim future where Brainiac has effectively defeated the heroes of Earth because they were so worn down by the villains. He brings Brainiac’s own technology to spread super-hero powers around the Earth, creating a whole new generation of heroes and villains to fight Brainiac when he comes. You are captured by one of Brainiac’s ships and must fight your way out before your mentor can begin your “real” training.

DCU has shift blocking and clickable attacks in addition to the specials on hotbars, but as far as I can tell, the attacks are not negated by “twitch skills.” (Explanation of that down under “DDO”)  There’s not a lot of ability to “kite” your enemies (backing up out of reach while doing a ranged attack). It amounts to a lot of button mashing.

Leveling is done in trees- choose branches to get different abilities. I am not, however, sure that this leads to unique characters or if all abilities will eventually be available, leading to cookie cutter fire heroes and cookie cutter ice heroes.

The graphics and UI are suitably Super. Not quite cartoonish, they are comic-esque.

In 55 minutes, I created a character (14 minutes! and that was without making my own costume), completed the tutorial, and reached level 4.

First impressions: The cut-scenes were pretty awesome, especially in the beginning with all the heroes and villains kicking each others’ butts. The ability to fight side by side with Superman in the tutorial seems like it will be like the DDO starter region that ends with a dragon… something to wet your whistle though ultimately it doesn’t mean much. I was a fan of City of Heroes, but to be able to have real superheroes instead of the cheap knockoffs is pretty awesome. Other than that, there’s definitely a lot in DCU that seems familiar from CoH.

Lord of the Rings Online- Landroval Roleplay Encouraged server, Female Man Champion… Woman Champion? Female Human Champion? lol. Pretty sure they are just considered “Race of Man,” not human, but whatever.

I thought about going with all “hunter”/”ranger”/bow user types, but decided that I’d do whichever looks best for soloing between melee DPS and ranged DPS. In this case, I wound up with Champion. Turbine runs this, as well as DDO, so I expected to see more similarities, but the games are very different in feel. Obviously, it is built around the Middle-Earth of Tolkien. The events take place just before the first book/movie, but I believe the opening changes depending on your race and/or class. (Not sure, just a guess.) Aragorn is searching for a hobbit named “Baggins” and happens to rescue you during his mission. Turns out this is not the Baggins he was searching for.

One of my favorite things about LOTRO is the fact that their Role Playing servers are actually enforced- naming conventions, chat rules and so on are listed in the forums, and people who are not following the guidelines can be reported and even banned. It would be nice to actually be able to play without seeing someone with a name like “Can-O WhoopAss” or the other ridiculousness I’ve seen. It may be your pleasure to do such things, but when I play RPGs, I tend to appreciate realism.

LOTRO is much like WoW in control schemes with auto-attack, refreshing hotbars, and no twitch. Just like in WoW, you also end up with the same abilities for all characters of a class. The graphics are not quite as cartoony as WoW, but definitely not realistic either.

In 60 minutes, I completed many tasks, most of which were “Go here, talk to A,” who then told me to “Go back and talk to B.” Others were “Go here and kill X number of Y.” Typical MMO fare. I reached Level 5 and completed the tasks within the starter city.

First impressions: For a role-player who is into LOTR, I imagine this would be heaven. If you only have passing knowledge/don’t really care about Tolkien, it’s just another fantasy game that plays just like WoW. My best guess right now, though, is that LOTR is more free-friendly than WoW. We’ll see if that continues to be true.

Star Wars: The Old Republic- Jung Ma, Role-Playing PVP server. Human Jedi Consular

Set between the two trilogies, the game emphasizes the war between the Galactic Republic (and the Jedi) and the Sith. This is a Bioware game, and tends to look more like a single player RPG that just happens to have a lot of other people playing too. There are a lot of cut-scenes, especially since most MMOs just have text to read when progressing what little story they have. This one, however, looks like it might actually have an overarching personal plot! I can hope, anyway. That was one of the things about this game that initially caught my attention.

Unlike the above, the actual combat and leveling systems are pretty much just like WoW- cookie cutters and auto-attacks. Graphics are a bit more realistic than LOTRO, way more realistic than WOW.

In 52 minutes (actually more for creation and the intro movie- my daughter reset my timer), I completed the introduction and got to level 3. I managed to get inside the Jedi temple before quitting. Most of the races are unavailable for free players, at least at first.

First impressions: I like the aspect of storytelling and the potential for choice to make a difference, but I’m not a big fan of the combat, leveling, or the little twerp who came by and rescued my padawans while I was busy killing their guardians. Also, for a Role-playing server, there was a whole lot of not-role-playing chat in the general chat.

WoW- Alliance, Night-Elf Hunter, Emerald Dream Roleplaying PVP server.

I’ve never understood the draw of WoW. The graphics are so cartoony they are just ridiculous (what is up with the Night Elf eyebrows??) and the bright colors make me want to hold my head in anticipation of a headache. It seems like nothing but grind until high levels, and the free-to-play model essentially sucks (at least that which I have heard of so far). You cannot get to the “good” non-grind parts unless you purchase the game.

All characters are cookie cutters in the shape of their class- all night elf hunters will have the same abilities at X level. Combat is bar-watching refresh and auto-attack.

In 62 minutes, I created a character and reached level 5. Like LOTRO, it’s hard to really tell how much I did because so much of it was simple “talk to that guy” or “kill those things.”

“First” impressions: I’ve given this one a try a couple times when it would offer free trial periods just so I could try to figure out why so many people played it. This time around, I see much of the same things I saw last time- a complete grind that is not really “fun” at all. I like some challenge, and this is not really what I’m looking for. I’ll keep investigating, but this one is the least likely of the five to make the top of the chart.

DDO- Khyber server- Dwarf fighter- 58 minutes.

DDO is based on D&D, 3.5 edition, specifically the Eberron campaign setting. Everything uses a d20 system, so a +1 is really a 5% increase for those people who think of things in percents. Most of the rolls are also against something else, whether it is an opposing roll or a static check. You are shipwrecked by a dragon while on your way to the city of Stormreach on the distant, mostly-unexplored continent of Xen’drik. While most of the world is “civilized,” most of the land of Xen’drik is still wild.

One of my favorite parts about DDO was the fact that it was based in the 3.5e/Eberron D&D system. As a former tabletop player, I am familiar with it, and love the customization options it gives me. I can make a bard/fighter/cleric if I want to. I have made bard/sorcerer/favored soul mixes with insane amounts of spellpower and the ability to use nearly every wand in the game. As a player who loves creating characters, DDO blows the rest of the games away. Most of the others have pre-planned characters where all of X class will have the same abilities at level Y.

Another aspect was the combat system. Some spells, such as magic missile, are not avoidable, but others, and all projectiles are. Some people might call these “twitch skills” because your fingers have to be quick to avoid damage, but I enjoy the very tactical essence of DDO combat. Stick the tank with his shield in front of the archer, the archer pelts the enemy and the enemy’s arrows bounce off the shield! You don’t just stand there watching your bars refresh and auto-attack. There are refreshing bars, but they are special moves, and not at all needed. The tactics available for use are crazy in number, and I’d need a whole blog just to talk about all of them, but let’s just say it’s not limited to what I mentioned.

The third thing I love, that I usually forget to appreciate until I play another one, is the instancing. Taverns, quest collection and turn in, and so on are performed in city zones that have no fighting (except the “PVP” brawls in taverns that are in specific areas only). There are “wilderness zones” where you must travel through hostile territory to accomplish goals or find new dungeons, but most dungeons are accessed directly from city zones. This means no kill- or goal-stealing cretins who wait for you to do the dirty work then steal your glory (or loot). It also means no randomly dying when all you are trying to do is walk from one city to the other to sell something.

Another note on looting- everything is automatically assigned to a member within the quest. No rolling for something unless that person wants to give it up. No fighting over who wants what. If you don’t want something, assign it to someone else or leave it in the chest. No looting dead bodies. Everything is in chests.

The levels are split into “Action Points” so you earn 4 APs then a level. Since before the recent expansion, the max level was “only” 20, APs were included to ensure that there was a constant “leveling up” feeling for those who need instant gratification.

Free players start with 2 character slots on each server, and the basic races and classes.  Some specialty races and classes can be purchased or must b unlocked in the game. Another comment on the D2P model Turbine uses here- everything you do fills up another bar for “Turbine Points.” Each time you accomplish something major (favor, getting a first character to a certain point, etc.) you earn more TP which is used to buy everything in the store. You can also buy TP with real money. This is what I mean by everything is free- if you grind for TP, you can eventually unlock everything. As far as I know, nothing is only for paying members. (Of course, I could be wrong. I haven’t been a “real” free player since I was formerly a subscriber. I’ll find out soon, though.)

I do wish they had a Role-Playing server although I’m sure there are some guilds out there that will do the job. In addition, although there are quest arcs- multiple quests that link together in a single tale- there isn’t really a personal story like I may find in SWTOR.

So, in 58 minutes, I created my character (admittedly quick because I have so much experience with the game and knew what feats and skills I wanted), went through the tutorial and five of the starter quests. I earned 4 APs, but am not quite to level 2. This translates roughly to level five in another MMO.

“First” impression: The closest thing to tabletop D&D I’ve ever found. Sure, you can play Neverwinter Nights or Baldur’s Gate, but to be able to tactically advance with a group against the minions of a dungeon master is something else. Permadeath play is also very easily accomplished here, since everything is instanced. There are no PVP realms or fighting in the streets. You know when you have to be ready to defend yourself. Just join with other people with similar goals, and you’re set. (Google permadeath guilds and see which one fits your style best!) I know I’m slightly biased since I played this game for years, but I’m sure there’s a reason I played it so much! Maybe I’ll be able to flesh out the reasons more in the coming weeks.


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